HL Deb 04 November 2003 vol 654 cc688-90

3.10 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hillasked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will ensure that their proposals for a commission for equality and human rights do not weaken existing legal protection against unlawful discrimination and that the chair and members of the commission are appointed in a way that demonstrates their independence.

The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, the Government's proposals are made to fight discrimination and inequality as effectively as possible. The new body is the result of the biggest review of equality institutions in a quarter of a century. Bringing the existing commissions together and adding human rights will give greater support and more coherent advice to individuals, businesses and communities. A single body had the support of a clear majority of the respondents to the consultation.

The commission's chair and members will be appointed in accordance with the Code of Practice of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, which ensures a fair, open and transparent process for making public appointments and includes provision for independent scrutiny.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for that helpful Answer to my Question. The Government's announcement in it will be very welcome to the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, which has advocated these reforms, as has my party.

Does the noble and learned Lord agree that in order to win and retain confidence among the vulnerable groups which are the potential victims of discrimination, it is essential that in any reform nothing should be done to weaken the existing legal protection provided against discrimination? Does he also agree that there is nothing whatever in the suggestions around the marketplace that someone has already been lined up to be chair, notwithstanding that this is a Nolan appointment?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I would entirely agree with the noble Lord that none of the existing legal protections should be reduced. We believe that bringing the commissions together into one single body provides better protection and a greater focus on fighting discrimination and inequality. Yes, I can completely scotch the suggestion made in the latter part of the noble Lord's question.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that the problems of discrimination which face disabled people are of a different degree and kind from problems of those who face discrimination on grounds of, say, gender or race? There are physical problems of mobility and access; there are communication problems for those with learning difficulties; and there are different communication problems for those who are visually or hearing impaired. Will my noble and learned friend assure the House that the work on all those different problems which are specific to disabled people will not be lost in the work of an overarching commission for equality and human rights?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend's description of the differences in relation to the problems faced by the disabled. In constructing the single body—and much work needs to be done in working out the detail—we must be sure that people who are disabled and have experienced the problems of disability discrimination are actively involved in the process of creating the new body. That is why a task force has been set up in which those campaigners will be actively involved and we shall try to meet the very point that my noble friend has raised.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, on that point, does there not remain a strong view that disablement should be dealt with by a separate commission and not be included with the others?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, indeed, that point was made during the consultation. We had to take a decision in relation to it and we believe that the right course is to bring the Disability Rights Commission into the single body. However, we must ensure that the creation of the body meets the point raised by my noble friend Lord Carter.

Baroness Prashar

My Lords, as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I, too, welcome the establishment of a single commission to promote equality and human rights. However, does the Minister agree that if the objective of the commission is to promote equality for all, it should be seen as a new body and not one which emerges as a result of the merger of the existing equality commissions?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, very much so. I remind noble Lords of what I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Lester: it must not dilute existing protections for those who suffer discrimination. However, in creating the new body, one of the purposes is to make it absolutely clear that equality and anti-discrimination are a mainstream activity— not just for individual groups but for everyone.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, under existing legislation relating to sex and race discrimination, the Crown is not exempt from the provisions of the Acts. Will the same apply to the new legislation?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the announcement about the single body relates only to the setting up of the single body. It is not about changing any other aspects of the discrimination legislation. A whole range of other issues need to be considered in relation to further legislation, but we propose to proceed on an incremental basis in relation to those other issues, one of which my noble friend Lady Lockwood has raised. The announcement we made last week is about the single body.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, the Government believe that it is not sufficient to have the Disability Rights Commission in consultation. That is fine and helpful. However, is not the real answer to ensure that on disability the new body has complete autonomy? Without autonomy, disabled people will be overshadowed, overruled and overseen by other problems. Can the Minister assure us that there will be a significant degree of autonomy for the disabled groups?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as I said in answer to my noble friend Lord Carter, we are absolutely determined that the disability issues are not lost in any way. Precisely how one ensures that is a matter for the task force that has been set up. It will have those involved with disability as its members and it will be for them to work out the best way to put forward the detail which will achieve that.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, in the light of what has been said today, can the noble and learned Lord assure us that such a giant-like organisation can be as effective as the existing organisations in protecting the rights of the groups they represent?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, we believe that it can. That was the view of the majority of people who responded to the consultation; it was the view of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We believe that it can because it brings equality and anti-discrimination issues into the mainstream. Instead of going to a number of bodies, one can go to one body to obtain the support that so many people need for equality and anti-discrimination issues.